Digital DIY Class: Smart connection... A late adopters' guide to connected homes
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Our technology editor looks at how a wave of new smart appliances and utilities are catching on in ordinary Irish households
What is a smart home?
It's an ordinary home with some bits that now either let you control them from a phone or 'talk' amongst each other to make sure things happen as they should.
Like what, for example?
The most common examples are products such as the Nest thermostat, which connects to your heating system and then runs it according to how how cold it is or by what time it is. Alternatively, it runs things based on whether you're in the house or not. Products like Nest are programmable from your phone and can do a huge number of things, based on other conditions occurring around them.
Okay, but my heating system works fine and I don't particularly like gadgets…
The reason that 'smart' utilities in ordinary homes are taking off is not just that they represent the latest shiny tech. The good ones save you time or money. Nest, for example, analyses the times that you use your heating and starts to suggest times when you might not need your heating on. (It does this using sensors and software.) The company claims that most of its thermostat users end up with lower heating bills.
Okay, that sounds potentially useful. Any other genuinely pragmatic applications?
Security is an obvious one. There are now umpteen webcams on the market that give a live feed to your phone from wherever you place one in your home. These not only let you have a look at what's going on in real time, but they also now have motion detectors that send your phone alerts if any movement is detected. Nest's webcam even stores clips for you online so that the footage can't be destroyed if the device itself is smashed. Webcams are also very handy for keeping tabs on sleeping infants. Then there are things like smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. Some of today's 'smart' models have beefed up sensors that can tell the difference between too much steam and smoke and eliminate other 'false positives'.
What about cleaning?
Some smart applications are making their way into washing machines, but it's still at a basic level. Physical house-cleaning machines, like robotic vacuum cleaners, are also gaining some connected features. But they are not as advanced as other household appliance categories.
Hmmm. Anything else?
Well, music is a big 'connected home' category. Wireless speakers from companies like Sonos, Samsung, Sony and Philips make it easy to connect to each other and to your phone or laptop, where your Spotify, iTunes or radio sits. Most Irish retail stores say that wireless connected speakers are their biggest sellers. Then there are coffee makers, cookers and fridges.
Why would I want my fridge to be connected to my phone?
Because it might tell you when some of your food is about to go off. Some models being developed by manufacturers like Samsung and LG include sensors that can detect changes in food freshness. They then let you know via a phone app or a message.
But my fridge is only two years old and I'm not changing it again for a while.
Fair enough. Some manufacturers are now making add-on gadgets that turn old appliances into new connected ones. For example, LG's SmarthinQ sensor can measure things like vibration on the outside of a washing machine or movement on a safe door. The idea would be to let you know when a washing cycle is finished or when someone has opened a safe.
What about cookers?
Cookers are developing in slightly different ways. New models from Miele, for example, come with advanced sensors that measure the size or proportion of food you're preparing and then cook them for the adjusted amount of time. The idea is that you never undercook or overcook a roast chicken again.
But doesn't that take the whole art out of cooking?
In one sense, yes. But manufacturers are betting that for every culinary masterpiece you lovingly prepare for dinner party comrades, there are five or six more prosaic dishes that you just have to knock out on week days for your family. The calculation is that you don't really care as much about signature touches when you're trying to squeeze out a home-cooked meal for kids in between work assignments. Sticking with cookers, there are other benefits. Some models let you turn them on remotely from their phone. So you might have a dessert or leftovers that need to be heated up - you can kick this process off from the bus or just before you leave the office.
Does everything in this new 'smart home' movement work through a phone?
A lot of it does, because that's the basic tool that most of us carry around these days. But some smart gadgets don't need humans to tell them what to do anymore. They're starting to talk to each other. Specifically, some of them are using an emerging standard called IFTTT ('If This, Then That'). This is a system where one connected devices does something - switches on a light, for example - and another one detects something else happening. For example, if a sensor on a door detects movement, another sensor attached to a lamp or the radio or the heating might turn one of those things on.
Is all of this smart stuff really expensive?
No. There's a lot you can get for under €100. One of the cheapest and easiest ways to make almost any device in your house 'connected' is to attach it to an inexpensive 'smart' plug. Belkin's WeMo plug is probably the best example here. Costing around €40, it basically connects whatever is plugged into it to your phone (via a free phone app). At a minimum, it allows you to switch it (and therefore whatever is connected to it) on and off from your phone, wherever you are. But you can also program it. For example, you can ask it to keep track of when the sun goes down (by checking online) and to switch itself on when this happens. So being 'connected' is now a common, affordable reality: you probably already own most of the tools needed to make it happen.
Do I need good broadband for all this stuff to work?
Generally yes: you need reliable working broadband. That's because most of these gadgets work by connecting whatever it is that you're controlling - a cooker, coffee-maker or thermostat - to your phone. The main way of doing that is through your home's wifi, usually to an app.
What happens if I lose my phone?
With most phone-controlled smart devices, you can log in to its controls from another device using an email address and a password. But if you lose your phone, you might want to change the access passwords for items such as security webcams.
Does this mean that I have a whole new bunch of passwords to remember?
Not necessarily. But you should have a formula for having different passwords for different devices anyway. If you don't, here's one: take the first initial or number from the same sentence and add the service name at the end with an exclamation mark. In this way, if your repeat sentence is 'my first cat's name was Basil', your password for a Nest will be: M1CNWBnest!
Home is where the smart is... Five 'connected' gadgets
Nest Protect (€120)
This device, which protects against smoke and carbon monoxide fumes, is 'smart' in two ways. First, it's largely controlled by your phone, wherever you are, via your home wifi. That means you get immediate alerts in case it detects anything. Secondly, the alarm checks its own sensors assiduously - up to 400 times a day. If anything is a little wonky, you'll be told. And that's the other thing about this gadget: it talks. So it's not a case of deciphering whether one long beep means smoke versus two short beeps for carbon monoxide. It actually speaks out loud, in English: "Please be aware, there's smoke in the living room". Or: "Emergency, there's smoke in the entryway". The Protect device even works with its sibling thermostat gadget to inform itself when you're home or not. (This way it can test the alarm without freaking you out.)
Nest Cam (€200)
This gadget's basic job is as a web cam with motion sensors that sends your phone an alert - and a video clip - any time movement is detected around it. You can also check what's going on at any time with live video streaming right to your phone or tablet, via Nest's free app. And its microphone and speaker mean that you can also communicate through it, whether it's reassurance or warnings. Nest uses the 'cloud' well. Because video clips are stored online by it, they can't be side-stepped by someone simply removing a memory card from the device or smashing the camera. There's a limit to how long Nest will store clips online for you unless you subscribe to a premium subscription ('Nest Aware') which costs either €10 per month or €100 per year.
Wemo Insight Switch (€60)
The Wemo switch basically connects whatever is plugged into it to your phone (via a free Wemo app). So whether it's a lamp or a TV or whatever, it becomes controllable no matter where you are. It is also programmable: you can 'set' it (again, via the app) to switch whatever it is connected to on or off at a certain time. There's even an advanced customisation facility called IFTT ('If This, Then That') that allows you to perform under certain conditions. You might be away and want a TV and a light switched on for appearances sake. Or you might even want to activate the kettle two minutes before the halftime break in a football match to save time.
WeMo smart LED lightbulb (€30)
WeMo's bulb lets you switch on or off from your phone, regardless of where you are away from the house. The bulb connects to your home wifi and, through this, can be controlled through an accompanying WeMo app on your phone. This is very straightforward to use and, among other things, allows you to time the bulb's luminescence according to sunrise and sunset times.
Sony SRS X88 (€450)
Sony's X88 90-watt wireless 'high resolution audio' speaker plays audio from your phone, tablet or PC, as well as from cabled sources. It adds in smart home compatibility, with multi-room connectivity now built in through Sony's SongPal smartphone app. This gives it fresh impetus against powerful competitors such as Sonos. It has upmpteen ways of connecting to a wireless music source, including NFC (using Bluetooth), DLNA, AirPlay and even Google Cast. And it supports almost all major digital music formats from any PC or electronic device.